During Hillary Clinton’s 11 straight losses to Barack Obama, her aides and allies started talking about the Clinton roller coaster. She wasn’t in a death plunge, they said; it was just a steep drop before an inevitable upward rise. By winning the Ohio and Texas primaries Tuesday, Clinton got that lift, but her campaign seemed less like a roller coaster and more like Lufthansa flight LH 044, a careening near-death experience that stabilized only at the last white-knuckle moment.
But what exactly did Clinton gain with her extraordinary win? The Democratic race has come down to a contest of numbers versus narrative. The numbers are on Barack Obama’s side. Clinton won three of four primary contests after being outspent, and in the face of Obama’s momentum, but didn’t much diminish Obama’s pledged-delegate lead of more than 100. Barring a cataclysmic event, Clinton isn’t going to take the delegate lead from Obama, which means he can still make the case that he is the candidate of the people. He will argue that the 800-odd superdelegates who will determine either candidate’s victory should side with the voters. When Georgia superdelegate Rep. John Lewis this week switched from supporting Clinton to Obama, he said he wanted to be with the people and on the right side of history. Obama will bank on the fact that the party of voting rights is not going to overthrow the will of the people to deny the nomination to the first African-American candidate.
Exit polls show Obama has support for his argument. Roughly two-thirds of voters in the four contested states said that superdelegates should vote based on the outcome of the caucuses and primaries and not their own priorities.
Hillary Clinton is trying to make the story matter more than the numbers, and what she won Tuesday were some good talking points for her narrative. She’s got to make the case to the roughly 300 undecided superdelegates that they should overlook Obama’s advantage among pledged delegates. Her argument has two parts: Obama doesn’t represent the Democratic Party, and he is a flawed general election candidate.
How is Obama a flawed Democrat? He can’t win big states, her aides will argue. Clinton has now won Ohio, Texas, New York, California, and New Jersey. Obama has only limited appeal, they will argue, whereas Clinton wins the kinds of Democrats necessary to win in big, electorally rich states. But it’s not that simple. Obama won electorally crucial swing states such as Missouri, Colorado, and Wisconsin, and he’s won all across the country, so his appeal isn’t that limited.
Clinton aides will also return to the argument that she captures bread-and-butter blue-collar voters. In Ohio, Clinton won 56 percent to 43 percent among voters with no college education. She also dominated among union households, though Obama had several unions working for him. The economy was the No. 1 issue in both states. Democrats who believe paychecks, jobs, and health care will be the dominant issues in the fall might be convinced by her argument that she is the only one who can deliver them.
Here again, though, Clinton’s case isn’t airtight. Obama won among the working class in Wisconsin, and he also won working-class white men in Wisconsin, Missouri, and New Hampshire. In the last three weeks, Obama had been making inroads in Ohio with those lacking a college degree, narrowing Clinton’s margin from 26 points to eight points. This suggests that while Clinton won blue-collar voters in the end, their vote was more up for grabs than the Clinton folks claim.
Clinton aides will try to take advantage of the party’s perception of itself. She fought back. Democrats like fighters. She’s a blood-and-guts Democrat at her core, which makes her a natural fit for the party. In making her third comeback of the race, Clinton showed voters that she could do for herself what she’d been promising to do for them on the stump. Clinton hit that theme in her victory speech. “For anyone … who’s ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out,” she said, “for everyone who’s stumbled and stood right back up … this one is for you.”
The second prong of Clinton’s argument—that Obama is a risky choice for the general—is more tenuous but may be more potent. Clinton played hardball during the past week, raising questions about Obama’s position on NAFTA, his unanswered questions about longtime fundraiser Tony Rezko, and his qualifications to be commander in chief. The Obama campaign complained that this was a part of what one Clinton ally called the throwing the “kitchen sink” strategy, but the attacks were inbounds.
Unlike Clinton’s loony effort to tag Obama as a plagiarist, these attacks may have been effective. The attacks picked up in the final days before the vote, and Clinton won handily among voters who made up their minds in the last three days. In earlier contests, Obama had done better with voters who had decided in that time period. But the attacks were not cost-free for Clinton. Voters by a margin of 52 percent to 36 percent told exit pollsters that Clinton was the candidate who attacked unfairly.
On NAFTA, Obama helped Clinton throw him off message on an important issue. Clinton picked up on a news report that claimed Obama’s chief economics adviser had back-channel discussions with Canadian officials to let them know Obama’s opposition to NAFTA was merely political posturing. Obama’s denials about the meeting turned out to be inoperative, and his aides then issued parsing denials. Though the story was not as explosive as first reported, there was more to it than the campaign let on. The behavior looked like old-fashioned political ass-covering, not the new kind of transparency Obama has been promising for the last year. It also seemed odd that Obama, who has promised to have full C-SPAN coverage of his administration’s hearings, would keep the aide closeted from facing questions from the press corps.
Did Clinton’s children-in-peril ad pay off? Even before the results were in on Tuesday, it seemed to. As late as 3:30 p.m. on Election Day, the Obama campaign held a conference call to push back hard against it. Greg Craig, an Obama supporter but longtime Clinton friend and Bill Clinton’s lawyer during his impeachment trial, unloaded on Clinton. Saying that she would “do anything to win this nomination,” Craig repeatedly asserted that she had failed her “commander-in-chief test” multiple times with respect to the Iraq war.
Exit polls don’t give clear evidence that the ad paid off. When voters were asked which candidate was the most qualified to be commander in chief, Clinton won 54 percent to 40 percent in areas of Texas where the ad ran, but Clinton has always done well on that question, and those differentials were in the midrange of her previous performances. On the question of which candidate has more experience, voters gave Clinton her usual wide margin of more than 80 percentage points, but only 28 percent of voters in Ohio said that was the most important quality.
The larger point the Clinton aides will make to superdelegates and voters in the next big primary state of Pennsylvania is that the Texas and Ohio results reflect what happens when the two candidates are compared side by side. Obama can give speeches and draw crowds, but when it comes to matching him against a competitor, as the general election will demand, Obama can’t stand up to the comparison. Will any of the Clinton arguments work? We’ll see in the coming days if hundreds of superdelegates allow the primary process to continue without continuing to move toward Obama. Clinton is pleading for time, arguing that voters should be allowed to have their say in future contests. But even in this she comes up against a contradiction posted by Obama’s lead. Because she must rely on the superdelegates to beat back Obama’s likely lead in the popular vote and among pledged delegates, she is essentially asking those superdelegates to listen to the people—but only long enough to be persauded to vote for her. Then she expects them to undo the will of the people by voting against Obama in Denver. Clinton has rescued her campaign from free-fall, but the ride from here to the nomination is still going to be very bumpy.